40 million American homes cook their meals with natural gas. But most people don’t think of the little blue flame on their gas range as the end of a very long natural gas pipeline. New research shows that gas stoves pollute our indoor air, but Americans have yet to embrace alternatives, like induction stoves. In this episode, Better Off asks: When it comes to our health, are we better off giving up on natural gas?
Drew Michanowicz, senior scientist, PSE Healthy Energy
- Read about Drew Michanowicz’s 2022 study of volatile organic compounds and natural gas stoves, “Home is where the pipeline ends.” Drew led the study while he was a visiting scientist with Harvard Chan C-CHANGE.
- Read about a PSE Healthy Energy study on natural gas leaks.
Brady Seals, manager, Carbon-free Buildings Program, RMI
- Read about the revised WHO guidelines for indoor air quality.
- Read about the rebates available for induction ranges through the Inflation Reduction Act
Jon Kung, chef
- Watch chef Jon explain why he cooks with induction.
Host/producer: Anna Fisher-Pinkert
Better Off production team: Kristen Dweck, Elizabeth Gunner, Stephanie Simon, and Ben Wallace
Audio engineering and sound design: Kevin O’Connell
Research: Kate Becker
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: From the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, this is Better Off. A podcast about the biggest health problems we face today…
Drew Michanowicz: Very often people have not thought about their kitchen stove or their home as being at the end of a pipeline.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: And the people innovating to create public health solutions.
Jon Kung: A healthy kitchen considers the people using it in its design in all aspects.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: I’m your host, Anna Fisher-Pinkert. This season, we’re asking what makes a healthy home. And today we’re starting in the kitchen.
Like a lot of people, I have spent more time at home over the last two years than I ever expected. And many, many, many of those hours have been in my kitchen. It’s where I have breakfast with my family. It’s where I go to find a snack, or two, in the middle of my workday, and it’s where my wife and I cook. I’m no chef, but we do cook quite a bit. And we’ve noticed that all this time at home is putting some wear and tear on our gas stove.
Noise from inside a kitchen.
Anna in Kitchen: So sometimes you have to turn it like three or four times to get the actual flame going. And sometimes we have to use an enormous lighter to get it going.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: So we’re thinking about making a change and just when we started looking at all these stove range combos, all of these articles started coming out: “Why gas stoves are bad for the climate and you!” “Gas stoves: Far worse for climate and health than previously thought.” And my favorite from the Atlantic: ” Kill your gas stove.”
I believe in science. I believe in climate change, but gas stoves are already in more than 40 million American homes. How bad can they really be for our health?
Brady Seals: It is shocking to me, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about stoves, how easy it is to overlook things in plain sight, the elephant in the room or the stove in the kitchen.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: This is Brady Seals. Brady originally worked on the issue of clean cook stoves in lower income countries where wood and charcoal are still often the primary fuels for cooking.
Brady Seals: And at the time I would come home from my trips and turn on my gas stove and cook my own dinner. And it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I started to realize that the gas stove that I used at home has some of the same climate and health problems that I was working to address around the world.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Brady now works as a manager of the Carbon Free Buildings Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. In her job, she’s focused on how buildings could be made better for the environment and for human health. Gas stoves, it turns out, are not great for either one.
Brady Seals: We have a couple of appliances in our homes, our gas stoves, our water heaters, our furnaces. And the gas stove, shockingly, is not universally required to be vented outdoors. Many of us, myself included, may have a stove with no range hood that vents outside. And so what happens is every time we turn on the gas burner to cook a meal, we’re also having a lot of combustion, which essentially is just burning. And some of those problematic pollutants that are coming into our home that really have nowhere to go because of poor ventilation are things like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde. You know, a lot of the same pollutants that come out of our car tailpipes. And we spend a lot of time inside at home. And so we are breathing in these pollutants that come from the gas stove.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: So, that sounds bad. And Brady’s just describing the pollutants that are released when we burn natural gas.
Drew Michanowicz, a former post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School, recently published a study on the composition of natural gas before it gets burned, at the point where it enters our homes.
Drew Michanowicz: We named our study, “Home is where the pipeline ends,” intentionally. You know, we took our samples directly from gas stoves that participants offered to us. Having spoken with so many participants, very often people have not thought about their kitchen stove or their home as being at the end of a pipeline.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Drew is now a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute that studies energy policy. A lot of his past work had looked at the supply side of natural gas. Natural gas is mostly methane extracted from the ground through fracking or other means. But methane is not the only chemical that’s pulled out of the ground during that process. And some of those chemicals are polluting, and some of them have health effects on the people who live near extraction sites.
Drew hypothesized that these chemicals could be entering the gas stream at the site of extraction, flowing all the way through the pipeline, straight into our homes via our gas stoves.
Drew Michanowicz: There’s been a lot of research, you know, monitoring air pollution around where gas is pulled out of the ground. We were really just struck by the lack of information out there on what else is in natural gas at the point where we use it.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Drew’s study looked for a specific subset of chemicals that are known to have harmful impacts on our health.
Drew Michanowicz: The United States Environmental Protection Agency, they have deemed about 187 different volatile organic compounds that we know are hazardous to the human body in some degree – causes some kind of serious health effect or cancer.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: When Drew and his colleagues sampled the natural gas coming into hundreds of homes, hundreds of little pipeline endpoints . . .
Drew Michanowicz: We did find 21 different hazardous air pollutants in end-use natural gas – this is consumer grade, natural gas. Again, this is unburned natural gas. Benzene for sure is probably the one most concerning probably the most toxic that we found.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Some of the chemicals found are known to have carcinogenic or other detrimental health effects. What we don’t know yet is whether the concentration of those chemicals in the home, or the frequency of exposure to those chemicals, is having an impact on the health of people who have gas stoves. But Drew says emerging evidence suggests that these pipeline endpoints in our kitchens are leaking.
Drew Michanowicz: We have been learning a lot about leakage of the natural gas supply chain, and leakage of natural gas-fired appliances in the home. And it seems that everywhere we look, these systems are leaking more than we think. A recent study that was done by Stanford University, they actually sampled how often are stoves and ovens leaking in homes. They sampled 53 different stoves and ovens. They basically found that 52 of the 53 had a detectable leak.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: But these leaks are small enough that you might not be able to smell them. And when you add up all the small leaks in all the homes across the U.S., it’s on par with the carbon dioxide emissions of half a million cars per year. But unlike car emissions, emissions from our natural gas stoves are not really regulated.
Drew Michanowicz: As it stands right now, indoor heating and cooking appliances do not meet the kind of source type that the EPA would regulate in terms of how much of these pollutants are being emitted.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: That’s something that concerns Brady Seals, too.
Brady Seals: Stoves are the one appliance in our home that we are standing in front of all the time. And yet, the gas stove is often the one appliance that gets exempted from these policies, but it’s the one appliance that may have the outsized impact on our health.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: So if the appliances aren’t required to meet any specific standard, what about indoor air quality more generally?
Brady Seals: The air inside of our homes is the great black hole. Nobody regulates it.
Last year the World Health Organization revised their global air quality guidelines that relate to indoor or outdoor environments. From what I’ve seen from reading this about gas stoves, I don’t know if a home with a gas stove could meet some of these levels, say for nitrogen dioxide.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Getting the EPA to set us indoor air quality standards is one of the policy interventions that Brady and Drew agree would be helpful in creating change.
Brady Seals: So we have outdoor standards since the dawn of the Clean Air Act. But we’ve seen in Canada and other places that they have set indoor air quality guidelines.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: In the absence of federal action, some cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco have taken it upon themselves to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, prompting a good deal of pushback. But one clear limitation to these bans is that most people don’t live in brand new buildings. Buying a new stove is expensive, and renters don’t usually get a say in what kinds of appliances are in their homes.
Brady Seals: The issue of gas stove pollution is a health equity and an environmental justice issue. There are a couple of factors that make lower-income people and communities of color more susceptible. One of these is the smaller the unit size, the higher the concentration of pollutants. Also, some of the people who are most susceptible to stove pollution are those who already have asthma or underlying conditions. The air we breathe is so unequal. And if you already live in a place that has really bad outdoor air quality because you live close to a polluting site or close to a highway, and then your indoor air is also polluted from an unvented gas stove, you could really be seeing more exposure to some of these harmful air pollutants.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Brady did have some advice if you are in a home with a gas stove.
Brady Seals: I’m glad that there are immediate and free things that we can do to reduce our exposure. So, the first thing is if you do have a gas stove and you have a range hood, is to use it. And they’re a lot more effective if you cook on the back burners. Another thing I learned is that there are these little vents in these range hoods that you can clean with soapy water, and that can also help. If you don’t have a range hood, which many people don’t, you can open windows and try to try to increase ventilation and circulation.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: The biggest change you could make if it’s available to you, would be to get rid of the gas stove entirely and replace it with an electric or an induction stove. But let’s say we all made that big expensive switch. The majority of U.S. energy still comes from fossil fuels. So haven’t we just pushed that public health problem back down the road to the people who live near fossil fuel extraction sites and power plants?
Brady Seals: I feel confident that the electricity grid will be a lot greener in the future. And so that’s why we are focusing on buildings. And the shocking thing, too, is that buildings are actually about 10% of our carbon emissions as a country. So when we think of pollution, we think of power plants, but, in some ways you could think of the appliances, your home is as a mini power plant.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Drew Michanowicz agrees.
Drew Michanowicz: It is much easier to remove greenhouse gases from our electricity system than it is to remove greenhouse gases from oil and gas systems. Methane is a greenhouse gas in and of itself. Natural gas is almost chiefly a climate pollutant.
Brady Seals: Our worry is that it’s sometimes 15, 20 years before people are changing out the appliances in their homes. And so, if we don’t start changing the way that we heat or cool our homes or the way we cook, there will basically be this lag time where our electricity is getting greener, but we’re putting in new gas appliances, which could be around for 20, 30, 50 years even.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: I’ll tell you, and I am not just saying this, my wife will confirm: Having these conversations with Drew and Brady convinced me that our next stove has to be electric. But it also makes me nervous.
I hated cooking on electric coils. But induction, the newer stoves that use magnets to draw heat into your pots and pans? I haven’t had the best luck with them either. This is where I decided I needed to talk to someone who uses induction every single day.
Jon Kung: My name is Jon Kung. I go by chef Jon Kung on Instagram and YouTube and all that.
I actually started off as a pop-up cook and by doing pop-ups all over the place, you don’t have the luxury of ventilation all the time.
And that’s the reason why I started, and fell in love with that technology fell in love with the accuracy, fell in love with how easy it was to clean, especially when I had to haul things around in my car all the time.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: John actually started using induction in his own apartment too. Beyond the health and climate benefits, we’ve talked about, he thinks it’s just a good way to cook.
Jon Kung: Because of the efficiencies of induction, 99% of the energy that you go into the cooking is actually gone into the pot and it’s not displaced as offset heat. Whereas gas, you’re at the mercy of this flame and hopefully you’re just punching enough power into the pot, through the fire, that, hopefully, you’re actually going to get something going. That creates a lot of waste heat and a lot of wasted energy that’s just spewed into your kitchens. If you’ve ever worked in any kind of professional kitchen setting, it’s literally hellish in how uncomfortable that can be.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: Reducing the heat coming off your stove is gonna be even more important as the climate warms, and we get more hot nights. Now, even with these benefits, Jon admits that using an induction stove has a learning curve for those of us who are used to gas.
Jon Kung: First of all, you have to make sure you’re using the right cookware. You have to make sure that you’re using ferrous metal, which is anything that reacts to a magnet. So if you can stick a magnet to the bottom of your pot or pan or whatever you’re using on the induction, then it should be compatible.
To get a good feel of how powerful your induction is, make a lot of eggs. Because egg reacts to heat so visually, when you’re scrambling it, you can see when it’s sticking, you can see when it’s burning. That’s a really good way to tell how high and how precise the throughput of your induction is.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: If induction is healthier, more efficient, faster, not to mention safer and easier to clean, why isn’t it in more American homes?
Jon Kung: We are literally like the last people to get on this. Every other country has been doing this already. It’s funny, I’ll be talking about induction stoves and how great these things are, and then, I’ll get like some Norwegian or UK commenter like, why is he talking about stoves? They all already had this.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: But change is hard. And our stoves that sit in the heart of our homes, they have an emotional and a cultural component too.
Drew Michanowicz: Let’s just talk about the primal connection that we have to an open flame as a human species, ’cause we have to, and ’cause there’s definitely something innate about it. Fire is light, it’s heat; some of the oldest stories we have told are light versus darkness as a species.
Jon Kung: I think there is an appeal to fire that kind of tickles the primal need to, you know, cook with a base element – in our minds, what a base element is. Maybe for some, there might be a toxic masculinity component to it as well. And some people are just resistant to change, right?
Brady Seals: It reminds me of the 11 or so years I spent around the world working with people who are cooking on wood and charcoal, and we were trying to help accelerate their transition to cleaner fuels. And this issue of behavior change came up a lot. Working with a lot of women around the world, there was one thing that I found to be the same, no matter which country I was working in. And I think it’s the same in the US: It’s time-savings and modernity. And I think that that’s the tradeoff and the benefit for induction. You know, my sister who recently switched to induction said, I’m able to get the mac and cheese on the table for my toddler in half the time. This is a big win.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: One of my vices is scrolling through pictures of luxury and celebrity homes, and I cannot count the number of houses I’ve seen that have a Tesla or a Prius in the driveway, and an enormous gas range in the kitchen – sometimes without a ventilation hood. So how do we redefine what a desirable kitchen, a good kitchen, a healthy kitchen looks like?
Jon Kung: A healthy kitchen considers the people using it in its design in all aspects. People spend a huge amount of their lives in the kitchen, whether or not they cook in them. It is also a place of gathering in many homes. And so, incorporating as few of these toxic elements into these parts of our homes, that’s what a healthy kitchen is.
Drew Michanowicz: If you were to ask me, what is the most hazardous thing in your kitchen? Is it the chemicals underneath your sink? It might be, but you know, we have put warning labels and everything on those, so we know not to consume them. We have created a barrier for that exposure route. We haven’t quite created the barrier for the exposure route for the stove and oven. So clearly a cleaner, healthier kitchen is one that is not burning natural gas.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: It seems like the era of cooking with gas is going to come to an end in my lifetime. And by the way, that “cooking with gas” slogan was an industry marketing strategy that goes all the way back to the 1930s. And for a long time, it worked. Millions of Americans are still cooking with gas, me included. But tucked into the Inflation Reduction Act is a provision for rebates on electric and induction stoves that kicks in in 2023. And come January, my wife and I are gonna make the switch and we’ll be making a lot of eggs.
Thanks for listening to Better Off.
If you like this episode, please subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Don’t forget to rate and review us and tell your friends about the podcast, too. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram @harvardchansph. We are better off with our team: Kristen Dweck, Elizabeth Gunner, Stephanie Simon, and Ben Wallace.
Audio engineering and sound design by Kevin O’Connell. Additional research from Kate Becker.
Special thanks to our guests, Jon Kung, Drew Michanowicz, and Brady Seals.
Visit hsph.me/better-off to learn more about their work and to find the next episode of Better Off. That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening.